Tag Archives: Ubisoft

Opinion – Solutions for Open World Games

We’ve hit peak open world….I hope.

The open world genre is undoubtedly dominating the video game space.  From genre luminaries like Grand Theft Auto and Far Cry to lesser lights such as The Division and Watch Dogs to genre newbies like Final Fantasy and Mass Effect, developers collectively have concluded that the market wants more open world games.  There certainly is something appealing about the genre.  The ability to explore new worlds, take on a variety of challenges, and change your environment for the better are all something that open world games do very well.  Sadly, newer entries have taken their cues from the Ubisoft model which significantly degrades their long term prospects.  I’ve already written on why that model doesn’t work, so this will be on how to fix it.  We’ll start with something that should be obvious:

Every game mechanic should meet a threshold of fun

Playing games is a voluntary act.  We all pick up the controller because a game promises a good time (however we choose to define that).  We don’t play games for the prospect of large quantities of boring activities which is where most Ubisoft style games land these days.  Rather than emphasize the entertaining nature of their gameplay, many open world games promise hours of stuff to do in the hopes that the player will find something to enjoy.  Unfortunately, this approach results in shotgun blast side quests that are quick, unspecific in their aim, and often variations on the same theme.  Final Fantasy XV demonstrates this issue by having a map full of activities that rarely elevate beyond “kill this monster” or a straightforward fetch quest.  The end result is a world full of activities of which few are actually worth doing.  This is a trend we’ve seen in countless other games including Mass Effect Andromeda’s deluge of shoddy side content and Far Cry 4’s multiple variations on item collection.  Developers need to ask themselves if every major mechanic in the game (open world or not) is fun on its own.  If the action isn’t, than strip it from the game rather than rely on the myriad of other activities to pick up the slack.  Quantity doesn’t make up for quality.

Systems are your friend

One of the greatest missed opportunities in games is the chance to apply broader mechanic systems to open worlds.  Rather than try to craft each event, developers should establish worldwide systems that create gameplay opportunities.   Saint’s Row 2 provides a simple example of something that could be incredibly complex.  When the player takes territory in SR2, the player’s gang replaces the opposing gang thereby turning a once hostile territory into a friendlier place.  When the player goes on missions, the gang will support them in the territories under the player’s control.  This system isn’t particularly deep, but it creates a more strategic element to the game where the player could take certain territories before missions to ensure they had back up during the big fights.  Open world games are perfect for this kind of worldwide system where the player can have an important impact on the look and gameplay of the open world.  Rather than making maps a collection of static icons, developers ought to code dynamic systems that create gameplay by themselves and through their interaction with other systems.

Please stop forgetting about the story

Given the considerable energy that goes into creating enormous environments, players ought not be surprised at the sacrifices developers make in other aspects of the game.  Story often suffers as the developers must devote limited resources to creating a story wholly within the open world environment.  Whereas other style games can move character’s through new cities, different continents, and even other planets, many open world games must focus on a single place.  The evolution of the Saint’s Row series shows how this works in practice.  While the early games focused on small time street thugs trying to carve out territory in a major city, SR3 & 4 envisioned the eponymous Saints with global aspirations.  Given the limited nature of open world environments, the stories of SR3&4 had to both justify a) why the Saints had to take over yet another city and b) why everything important seemed to happen within the confines of that city.  The end result was a hackneyed plot about space aliens destroying Earth who then put the Saints in a city simulation for, you know, reasons.  I’ve focused on the environment, but characters, narrative arc, and every other aspect of the narrative declines as soon as the developer utters the words “open world”.  By refocusing on making great stories, developers could create an interesting new direction for the genre.

If the open world fad is anything like its predecessors, we can expect it to fade as it collapses under the weight of over indulgence and its lack of innovation.  If open world games decline to the point of just a few tent poles, then developers will have missed out on an opportunity to do some incredibly interesting things with the genre.  These games should not have a future if they continue to mirror the Ubisoft industrial mold, but could create a whole new generation of fans if they’re willing to try something new.

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Opinion – Problems with the game factory

I’ve referred to Ubisoft games in the past, but never really explained it.  That ends today.

Ubisoft, the developer behind Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, The Division, and Far Cry, is known for its open world games.  They often have expansive maps, numerous activities plucked from a limit set of mini games, and collectible items sprinkled over the map.  The success of the above series shows how this approach can be quite appealing, but also has serious downsides.  For all the money of its made, Ubisoft is now seeing the weakness of their model.  It can be fixed, but it means going outside of their development comfort zone.

The Ubisoft model has some good things going for it.  The biggest two are the tons of content and (from the developer’s prospective) the quick turnaround on game development.  The sheer amount of content in an Ubisoft game allows the player to flit between activities ensuring that no one activity wears out its welcome and that the player can pick the parts of the game they enjoy.  Even better, many of these activities grant bonuses that improve the player’s abilities meaning that the content builds on itself as the player plays.  The standardized formula also allows Ubisoft to turn large games out in relatively little time.  With the exception of the new maps, most of the content is relatively easy to design and implement allowing for AAA games with only a year or so of turnaround.  Rather than wait three or four years for the next iteration of a blockbuster title, fans can experience one on a regular basis while the developer enjoys the financial benefits.

That is where the strengths end and much of the blame lies on the quick turnaround.  While the “map + mini games + weak story = success” template allows Ubisoft to churn out games quickly, it restricts what Ubisoft can do with the game elements.  The mini games are a perfect example of this.  The map of an Ubisoft game is littered with icons denoting diversions for the player.  Sadly, most of these games are undeveloped fractions of the larger game.  After playing a few rounds, the value of most side quests is in their rewards, not their gameplay.  At its worst, mini games reach Skinner Box levels of compulsion where the player isn’t having fun, but rather is receiving just enough of a reward to keep playing.   Ubisoft has had years and numerous games to fix this, but can’t due to the shortened development cycle.  Developing genuine side quests with fun characters, new gameplay, and a decent narrative ark takes time and coordination that a limited timeline with set pieces can’t allow.  To fit into the model, mini games must be unobtrusive and require little from the other elements to cut down on the amount of editing it would take to ensure each element fits together.  As a result, most of the diversions are small, repetitive, and self-contained until you get to the reward.

The mini games at least “benefit” from the compulsion to get just a little more.  Storyline, the often neglected aspect of these games, falls almost completely by the wayside.  The heavy investment in a map and gameplay style limit what each story can do.  Most game locations are, by necessity, in the game map because additional locations would take more time.  Stories can only ever happen in a few alternative locations limiting the scope and narrative to just those places.  The repetitive gameplay causes even more damage.  In a perfect world, gameplay would follow from story allowing the developer to create gameplay that reflects the larger narrative.  In reality, the writers get invited to the party too late.  In a game like this, the writers never get a chance to tweak anything.  They almost always write a story that matches the limited gameplay with the knowledge that they can do nothing new or interesting without requiring additional resources they won’t get.  With the locations and gameplay so restricted, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most Ubisoft game stories are garbage.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this before.  EA’s Need for Speed series followed a similar trajectory until the customer base grew bored and moved on to greener pastures.  Later developers took EA’s model and built the Burnout series which saw a new round of success.  If Ubisoft is willing to let its series breath, give them more time to develop, and dabble in new ideas, than the next success in the open world genre need not come from the outside.  With a little bravery, Ubisoft can leverage its existing talent to be the developer that takes these games to a new level.

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Opinion – The Kotaku Story Isn’t What It Seems

Assassin’s Snub

About a week and a half ago, Kotaku published an article revealing that publishers Ubisoft and Bethesda Softworks blacklisted Kotaku from information and content shared with other websites.  You can find the article here.  In it, Kotaku notes that it believes that the blacklisting is retribution for potentially embarrassing reporting done by the website.  The publishers’ revenge is part of a deliberate attempt to penalize Kotaku for their reporting.  Kotaku claims it has been wronged.  The (silent) publishers presumably believe they’re the wronged party.  What’s going on?

Let’s start by looking at this from the Kotaku perspective.  Kotaku is a website that prides itself on its independence and its unwillingness to walk the careful line between reporting what it knows and staying in publishers’ good graces.  When it gets a scoop, it runs the story.  Seen from Kotaku’s desire to “print the truth”, the decision by Ubisoft and Bethesda to blacklist the website is a power play designed to control an uncooperative media outlet.  Kotaku casts itself in the role of the noble rebel titling their article “The Price of Games Journalism” and claiming “We serve our readers, not game companies, and will always do so to the best of our ability, no matter who in the gaming world is or isn’t angry with us at the moment.”  This is a David v. Goliath story where games journalists are fighting back against the evil corporations.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that stories like these help Kotaku’s bottom line.  In telling the world that they’re blacklisted, Kotaku is also bolstering its reputation as an independent outlet beholden to no one.  The website built a business on printing scandals and writing independent reviews so publically burning a bridge, particularly since the bridge is ashes in private, is a net boon.  The fact that Kotaku presents itself as a champion of the customer is a nice little bonus.

In some ways, Kotaku is on the side of the customer.  People go to Kotaku and games websites to learn more about games.  Scoops and inside information are things that the audience wants to know.  As such, it’s generally in the customer’s favor to pry information from companies in order to be better informed.  In grabbing the popular standard, Kotaku is undoubtedly right that it’s acting on reader interest.

Let’s not forget that corporate interest is a thing too.  Ubisoft and Bethesda are not just purveyors of the wonderful games we all love; they’re also businesses.  They make games because they want money.  When Kotaku publishes an embarrassing article, it inevitably loses the publishers some of the money they’re hoping to make or makes an internal problem even worse.  In blacklisting the website, the publishers are trying to discourage articles that cost them.  In a publisher’s ideal world, all websites would report nothing but favorable things about their games.  Sounds evil, doesn’t it?

So Kotaku’s right, right?

Nope, they’re wrong.

…and right.  It’s complicated.

Kotaku’s claim that they’re standing up against the evil corporations has no merit.  The example articles they cite in “The Price of Games Journalism” aren’t life changing issues that the people need to know, they’re reports of trouble in a game studio or confirmation of development of a new game.  With the exception of something like the EA spouses story (look it up), Kotaku is just reporting stuff people want to know, not need to know.  There is no overriding public interest and the publishers don’t owe Kotaku or gamers any of the information they have.  Furthermore, the claim of bullying doesn’t really work in this context.  Yes, companies are trying to control the media, but they lack the means to do so.  Kotaku will still see early versions of the games at trade shows and will be able to write reviews when the games drop.  Publisher capacity to control the media is limited by the fact that they have a public product.  Kotaku’s independence is not threatened.

This is a situation where Kotaku, the publishers, and gamers are all pursuing their self-interest.  Kotaku wants access to information or, barring that, to establish itself as an independent outlet.  The publishers want to discourage negative reporting of their games in order to bolster their bottom line (and not make internal problems even worse with public exposure).  Gamers just want to know.  Nobody has a strong moral claim.  No party can really say it’s more deserving of its position than any other.  Everybody is doing what is best for them.

 

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